I heard the world premiere of Steven Stucky’s August 4, 1964 with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, Chorus and soloists with Jaap van Zweden last night in Dallas.

1. Not since the golden age of Handel oratorios has something like August 4, 1964 been so touching and well crafted; from the amazing libretto by Gene Scheer to the vocal soloist’s costumes, the evening was thought provoking and emotional. Supertitles brought clarity to the work, but with the diction of the soloists, it wasn’t needed but certainly appreciated. Still, small details like the italics for the Stephen Spender poem used in the score that hung on one of the mother’s wall after hearing about her son’s death, was brilliant to make a distinct between the rest of the libretto.

2. The mix between the Civil Rights and Vietnam War was just right – kudos for the balanced libretto from Gene Scheer, and for Stucky’s expressive score. Especially moving was the interaction of baritone Robert Orth and the chorus, often contrasting and supporting the storyline. Also the lyric lines of the female soloists, Laquita Mitchell and Kelley O’Connor, were not only performed exquistely, but had touching elements such as holding hands. (All four of the soloists were in period clothes of the 1960s, complete with hats for the women and slender ties for the men held by tie bars.) Staging had been thought about, complete with an oval office set, but was left undone without sufficient rehearsal time. Also, there was an idea to have an audio prelude or overture, with the actual White House tapes and news reports about this day in 1964. It was decided with the Meyerson’s acoustics, NOT to play it beforehand, but if you catch a pre-concert talk they play it there…perhaps it should be put online as well?

3. The 12 movements are broken up with large full orchestra moments, and at other times, chamber music with sparse chords. There is one orchestral interlude, an Elegy that comes in the middle of the work. August 4, 1964 is full of leitmotifs and structurally sound. Melodies and really, emotions, have their own personality through Stucky’s score. I thought it was at times overdone, an interval that the women sang at the ends of their phrases, that was central in the Elegy (which was written very early in the compositional stage.) However, grief (literally “The Saddest Moment”) is not something that just goes away, so this crafting of repeated intervals and its repeated use is quite deep. It also gives the listener the idea that Stucky spent more than just a few moments with the idea, and allows the tragic nature of the two issues to be heard.

4. Vale Rideout as Robert McNamara was pleasantly paced with fast talking and almost comedic elements, matched by Robert Orth as LBJ – who was much more the Texas slow talking, thoughtful character. Orth’s interpretation, complete with “dints” for “Didn’t” and more colloquial, laid back vocabulary, was spot on. Kelley O’Conor as Mrs. Goodman lent a sort of nervousness and hope to the role; while Laquita Mitchell as Mrs. Chaney showed anger, sorrow and righteousness in her voice. The Dallas Symphony Chorus was a star too, often taking a narrator role with the text and always in tune! It was a bit odd to hear amplified chorus soloists (perhaps 7 or 8 members), while a nice orchestration touch by Stucky to have individual chorus solos, who did not seem comfortable with the quick movement to get to microphones.

5. The work is about 70 minutes, and I could have easily heard it again (in fact I’ll go back on Saturday to hear it live again) on the program (and almost yelled Da Capo or Encore! during the standing ovation) after an intermission. However, that is not the case, as it is the only work on the program this weekend; and bravo to the DSO for commissioning a political evening length work during an election year. What a wonderful way to demonstrate the relevance of the events 44 years ago to today, and the revelance of classical music in our society! Truth be told, Stucky’s August 4, 1964 is deserving to be the only piece on a program (I was trying to imagine what you would put on with it – Survivor from Warsaw; Beethoven 9; Nixon in China or Chairman Dances; and nothing seems to fit really.) The emotional and musical journey of August 4, 1964 is satisfying, inspiring and enough to fill this program – it has had a good start, now I hope it sees many more.
Performances continue through Sunday at the Meyerson. See some photos over here at ClassicallyHip.

11 thoughts on “August 4, 1964: Five Things”
  1. Jay – that society was a joke from Derek Bermel, not from Steve. We all joined to give him a hard time – at least I did.
    But 8/4/64 is the real deal, as is Steve’s music. It’s wonderful that the DSO and NY Phil were performing his music at the same time – I wish I could have heard Rhapsodies as well.
    I ended up going to go hear 8/4/64 again on Saturday, and liked it even more after the performers had a chance to get more comfortable with it – and talked with Steve and Gene about the work – I’ve posted the video over on ClassicallyHip (not to be too self promoting!) if you’d like to hear more about the piece.
    Basically, I think Stucky is getting his due – a Pulitzer Prize winner, dedicated teacher and gifted composer, that his music getting some recognition.

  2. Haven’t heard the piece yet but isn’t Stucky a self promoting kind of guy? Check out his Facebook page where he has created the Steven Stucky admiration society.

    John I appreciate your comments but wonder how objective they are.

  3. I haven’t really heard it either, Andrew, but while Stucky might be on the “conservative” side (NOT in the Republican sense of the word, Zeus forbid!…) he tends to not head for “corny”. besides, a description of Either John Adam’s “Nixon” or Klinghoffer” would also (& actually, before their performances, did) strike me as corny beyond belief; yet they’re two quite musically powerful pieces.

    There’s a YouTube video previewing the Stucky piece, here:


    It doesn’t really give you any musical sense, but does outline the dramatic & philosophical background pretty well.

  4. I have not heard the work, of course, and it may be the greatest masterpiece ever written.

    From the description here, however, the whole thing sounds corny beyond belief.

  5. I am a 30 year season ticket subscriber to the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, And I must say that Saturday’s performance of this Stucky piece is just about the best modern music I ever heard. I thoroughly enjoyed it, was moved and excited….. Our new maestro, Mr van Zweden is turning out to live up to his expectations! Our Chorus has always been outstanding, and having so many visitors in town to hear the premiere will no doubt enhance their reputation.
    Bill in Dallas

  6. John,

    Thank you so much for your gracious review. I was fortunate to be a member of the chorus for these performances in Dallas. Rarely have I had such a satisfying choral experience. I’m so gratified that the response by reviewers and audience alike has been so positive. And I hope we get to record it too!

  7. Excellent review John! I was also there last night and echo everything you mentioned…I too was blown away. It was a hugely impressive work, and it’s hard not to lapse into hyperbole in describing it.

    Stucky successfully integrated each element of his large forces into a cohesive and powerful statement, and Scheer’s libretto was emotionally poignant in presenting the events from the first-person and letting the characters speak for themselves…allowing the audience to draw their own conclusions. The occasional role of the choir as Greek chorus drives home the still-relevance of these events, relating eerily to the seventh anniversary that occurred just a week ago.

    Stucky’s score is incredibly beautiful, almost sensual in its sorrow, portraying the oppressive hopelessness and heat of the 1960s South and the contrasting pressure-cooker of the Oval Office equally vividly. The color palette is wide-ranging too, from massive full choral and orchestral writing, to stunning duets for the soloists, to chamber moments with only a few players.

    It struck me last night that I was listening to a major, quintessentially American work by a major American composer, which in itself is a treasure. With echoes of Adams, at times Rouse and Copland, and references to Negro spirituals, Stucky taps into a language that is both deep-rooted and fresh.

    Factoring in the technically and emotionally assured performance by all on stage, you could hardly ask for a more rewarding evening…except for to be able to hear it again back-to-back. I am lucky we had to suddenly evacuate from Hurricane Ike to have had the chance to see this, and to have heard the DSO as well in Mahler 5 last week…van Zweden really has them firing on all cylinders.

    I can’t wait for this piece to make it to CD, and hope these forces get to record it.

  8. Bravo to the DSO for commissioning a political evening length work during an election year

    If only the Dallas Opera hadn’t been so craven and cowardly to cancel the American premiere of Mark Anthony Turnage’s wonderful The Silver Tassie in 2003 because its anti-war theme would have made their patrons unhappy in the wake of 9/11.

  9. I edited myself a bit quickly, and struggled trying to figure out how to say, if there were MORE oratorios like this, it would be as POPULAR as it was when Handel was all the rage in England.
    Scheer and Stucky have made something special, and it makes me wonder why there aren’t more full orchestra, chorus, + soloists works being commissioned…because people should be eating this up.

  10. “Not since the golden age of Handel oratorios has something like August 4, 1964 been so touching and well crafted” …

    Well, John, it might have been ‘so touching’ to you personally, but you are going to have to say alot more to prove your contention that the oratorios of Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Elgar, Walton, Satie, Honegger, Britten, Tippett, and several other Western classical oratorio composers are not as well crafted as the Stucky-Scheer oratorio.

    Thank you, otherwise, for your thoughtful preview and review of the work.

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